Happy Centennial, J. Alfred Prufrock

Thomas Stearns Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot

If there is a single poem that can be said to have revolutionized poetry in the 20th Century it is T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot started writing Prufrock in 1910, at the age of twenty-two. The poem was published five years later, when Ezra Pound, whom Eliot met and befriended as an expatriate in Europe, sent it to Poetry in Chicago, telling the editor: “This is as good as anything I’ve ever seen.” Pound was right. 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of Prufrock’s visit to an upscale whorehouse.

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question….
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit
In the room where the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

Entire volumes of criticism have been written on Prufrock; even WC is not so vainglorious as to attempt to criticize the poem. But WC does revel in the imagery. Remember, Eliot was just 22 years old when he wrote,

And indeed, there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare” and “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare disturb the universe
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

With allusions to everything from Homer to the Bible to Shakespeare to Carl Sandberg, the poem is a tour de force of western literature, wrapped in a sly narrative of an old young man’s visit to a prostitute.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear my trousers rolled

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon a beach
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they sing to me.

Something in the poem echoes in a young male college student, something about the old-young narrator, perhaps, or the self-conscious, self-mocking narrative voice, alternating between world-weary cynicism and anxious uncertainty.

But the poem is more than adolescent angst. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have cast the giant shadow it has across 20th Century literature. The whole poem is here.

Eliot was not a prolific writer; his collected poems and dramas fill a slim 388 page volume. Prufrock isn’t even his best poem. But Eliot and Prufrock had a profound influence on English poetry.

So Happy 100th Birthday, J. Alfred.